The Shadow State: probation chiefs voice doubts about outsourcing

Payment by results might work, but not the way this government is doing it, writes Alan White.

The Daily Mail carried an excoriating attack on the probation service last month under the headline "Nearly 50,000 criminals spared jail offend again within a year: MPs claim 'shocking' figures show failure by probation officers". Priti Patel MP was quoted:

"There is clearly a problem with the probation service which is not working well to deal with this issue".

The story was based on the Ministry of Justice's quarterly reoffending statistics. The only problem was that this short-term picture didn't show reoffending has in fact slightly decreased, every year, since 2000. And the figures included criminals who had received sentences under 12 months, for whom the probation service has no statutory responsibility.

Did the briefing for this story come from the opposition? Surely not: Patel is a Tory. One couldn't help but notice these lines:

"Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is set to announce within weeks that charities and businesses will be brought in to tackle entrenched reoffending as part of the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. Yesterday he said the majority of probation work would be outsourced."

Yes, the Government is laying the ground for another outsourcing "revolution". Grayling was, of course, the man who initiated the Department for Work and Pension's Work Programme, which operates on Payment by Results (PbR) lines. There's been much made of the Work Programme's failings: perhaps most relevant is the argument that it was simply wheeled out too quickly in comparison with Labour's New Deal.

I'm bemused after asking Mark Ormerod, Chief Executive of the Probation Association, about this latest initiative. What's the next step in the process? "Well," he replies, "a Government announcement would be helpful. We've been waiting for a response to the consultation since June. It's not even clear who's supposed to implement what, but we know it's supposed to happen in 2014/5. We're not opposed to the idea of PbR, but it doesn't seem very far away and the only way we can see it happening is some kind of central contracting process but that cuts across a tremendous amount of work that's being done at a local level."

And there's another reason it may play out this way: PbR requires contractors to put money on the table themselves at the outset (I've previously written about how this has put small charities out of business). Sebert Cox, Chairman of both the Probation Association and Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust, tells me it's likely to put off smaller charities: "We're lead to believe, by ministers and officials, that they want voluntary organisations to be an integral part of delivery. What I can tell you from a local perspective is that there'll be few small voluntary organisations that could become involved. They don't have the money – they're squeezed because of the climate in which we live. One has to be sceptical about who'll be coming forward to do this." Despite claims that the Work Programme won't be the model, it seems inevitable the likes of G4S and Serco will once again step into the vacuum.

Various sources have given a vague idea of how the changes will be implemented – it appears as if the outsourced work will be targeted on those serving 12 months or fewer; giving them mentors to make sure they have homes, are signed up to drug-treatment programmes and are generally supervised as they make their way in the outside world. But it seems odd that those with a serious stake in how the changes are enacted know little more than these basic details.

"There were some proposals put in the consultation paper, but how it'll mesh together isn't clear," says Ormerod. "We have concerns about the splitting of offender management and with the Probation Chiefs' Association we put in a joint response to the consultation paper, saying if you have different organisations responsible for it you lose accountability and transparency. You have that potential situation where various organisations look at each other and say 'I thought you were responsible for that' or 'That's not in our contract.'"

Savas Hadjipavlou, Business Director of the Probation Chiefs Association, expands on this: "If you compare probation work with other areas that have been outsourced, it tends to work where the business is transactional and clearly defined – things like civil service pensions. If you look at probation work it involves the courts, the police, local mental health services, drug addiction workers, local authorities – half a dozen agencies at least have to come together. We're talking about behavioural change and monitoring: the idea it can be easily mapped into a simple PbR model is rather difficult to understand."

He sees the probation officer's primary role as pulling together the contributions of these other agencies. "You have to preserve that, as against the purity of the PbR model which says you're not interested in the contents of what's done, you're only going to pay for the result. We've been looking at how you assess risk and it's a volatile process. It's not a precise science. High risk people can be low risk if they're taking their medication, if they've got mental health problems that are managed and so forth – that takes us back to measuring success. All those who go into prison with a Class A drug problem, for example, have a reoffending rate of 90 per cent. Government aggregates large groups and looks at the average but no sensible way of looking at success would do it by that measure."

For Ormerod this leads to a central question – how can you pay by results, when the results are so hard to measure? "With the Work Programme, getting someone in a job stops benefits being paid so you get an immediate cash reward. The immediate aim with this is to close prisons because you've got reoffending down, but that's a very protracted cycle. We're talking about making a long term behavioural change – there's no point saying we'll pay you after a week. It's a far more inchoate environment in terms of working out whether success has been achieved and then saying we can pay you something." And this begs the question of whether the programme will end up being PbR in name only, in fact tending closer to a conventional outsourcing project; thus negating the transparency the Government hopes to introduce.

Like many public service leaders, none of the people to whom I spoke had an issue with the fundamental idea of PbR. But when it's being introduced in such a chaotic and seemingly rushed fashion, they can hardly be forgiven for wondering if ideology is trumping pragmatism.

Chris Grayling arrives at the Guildhall to attend The Lord Mayor's Banquet. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle